Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
John Emerich Edward Dalberg
As human beings, we are all fallible to the absolute corrupting influence of power. History has proven time and time again that centralization/concentration of power in a few individuals much less a single person has disastrous consequences, no matter the initial intention.
It is a simple fact of nature. Most people do not possess the capacity to manage power very well. It is why we invented concepts such as democracy and capitalism, to ensure that power, be it economic, political or social, does not gravitate in the hands of a few.
And, the world has been better for it. Living standards have increased across the board and most people enjoy a relative sense of freedom compared to the past.
However, recent events are threatening to reverse the progress we have made so far. Technology, for all its benefits, is giving birth to a new kind of bourgeoisie; one that not only owns most wealth and means of production but also the very tools that make modern life possible.
And no, I am not talking about tech billionaires, although they also do deserve some brant of the blame as the purveyors of this current system. I am talking about corporations, specifically big tech.
It is astounding to me how little criticism is directed to corporations yet these are the institutions that give birth to billionaires who are, according to liberals, responsible for much of the ills plaguing the planet.
On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives who are very pro-business, criticize the government for any step that is deemed antagonistic to business. The result is a culture war that, in my opinion, leaves the real culprits without blame and therefore accountability.
It seems to me that many people are painfully unaware of how big and powerful, Big Tech, actually is.
This might have something to do with their humble beginnings. Most of these companies began as small projects headed by college dropouts with a few thousand dollars in investment. This is the story behind Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Google (Alphabet) and Amazon, the so-called Big Five. They are the ultimate rags-to-riches representation of the American dream.
What people seem to have forgotten, however, is that these companies are no longer startups, they are established companies making billions in profits annually. Much like Anakin Skywalker turning to Darth Vader, they are no longer that young prodigy.
So How Big is Big?
Well, let’s start with Apple. The company was the first among the first six to achieve trillion-dollar status. This effectively made it the largest company in terms of market capitalization, that is barring any murky state-owned oil company.
Apple hit 2 trillion two years later.
Today, four of the Big Five have a market cap of more than 1 trillion dollars, Tesla follows close with a market cap of $900 billion soon to achieve trillion-dollar status within the year if trends remain steady.
To put this into perspective there are only about 15 countries with an annual GDP of $1 trillion and above. One could say that these companies are kingdoms of their own. Perhaps the dystopian futures of corporatocracy were not far off all.
And even if we are talking about active users; Facebook has more than 2.9 billion users. This is bigger than both China and India combined. Amazon’s army of workers worldwide now numbers 1.2 million and it is rated the third biggest employer in the world, after Walmart and the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation
How did they even get this powerful?
Well technology, its that simple. The Big Five are essentially companies that managed to leverage the most out of internet 2.0 in one form or another.
Apple created the smartphone that powers most of the world’s access to the internet. Google (Alphabet) organizes virtually all the information on the internet so that you can easily find what you want. Microsoft essentially took all the tools in an office like a printer, scanner, and mail into a computer as software for people to use. Amazon made it so that you can buy basically anything on the internet.
These companies have contributed in one way or another to the relative modern economy in all its glory. This does not however mean that they get to control us.
What do I mean by this? I mean why is their size even that big of a deal? I mean provided they give what we want them to.
Well, not really.
Take Facebook for example. As pointed out earlier the platform has close to 3 billion active users run by a single CEO. Now whatever, your personal opinions on Facebook I am sure anyone would agree that is a lot of power for a single individual to possess. With access to such a large mass of the population and their data one is able to drive narratives to fit their personal beliefs and agendas.
And no, I am not trying to level such accusations on Mark Zuckerberg. As far I am concerned, he has done a good enough job so far. Though the jury is still out on this one. He has been criticized for breach of personal data and spreading false information on the platform.
That aside. He has done a good job so far. It could be worse. Much worse. What if say the CEO had nefarious intentions? Say to target a particular community? Or worse, cause a war? Well, s/he could very much achieve that. All h/s e would have to do is send the wrong information to the right people.
Such power cannot be left in the hands of a single individual.
Now I am sure some will be quick to mention the employees below them. Surely, not all of them would go along with this? Well, maybe. But by the time someone does say or do something some damage would have been done.
Hypotheticals aside. What have these companies done with the power they have?
For one, they really do not like competition. Each of the Big Five is effectively a monopoly or an oligopoly in its own industry with not much room for competition. Apple in the smartphone market, Google in search, Amazon in e-commerce and Meta in social media.
As monopolies, these companies have a lot of power in their respective industries. Changes to Facebook’s algorithm in 2018 hit some viral publishers’ revenues hard, while the complexities of negotiating Amazon’s search rankings have spawned an advisory industry.
Big Tech also preys on the competition. Buying up companies as soon as they pose a threat to their dominance or an opportunity to cement their positions. This is what Google and Meta have been doing with the acquisitions of YouTube and Android in Google’s case and WhatsApp and Instagram in Meta’s case.
Big tech’s increasing size gives it another big advantage: the bigger it becomes, the harder it is to challenge.
Moreover, its influence doesn’t stop there. Big tech also occasionally stretches its powerful hand in politics. The six big tech companies’ total spending on lobbying in the US had risen to $64m in 2019, according to the US Center for Responsive Politics. This may sound like a small amount but it was a significant rise from previous years. If trends continue, this figure may rise to the hundreds of millions.
We cannot also forget big tech’s continuous intrusions on personal data. Google’s and Meta’s almost entire revenue stream is dependent on selling your personal data to Third Parties for advertisement. This industry rakes in billions.
One of the most important projects in the near future will be to figure out how to reign in Big Tech’s growing power.